The surveillance state tightens its grip on us all
New laws that will mean ID checks for all, state supervision of the media, gagging of campaigns in the run-up to an election and a threat against publishers of devastating accounts of secret surveillance. Russia? China? Nope, dear old Britain.
The ConDems’ new anti-immigrants Bill will mean checks on status before people can access housing or health. This will hit everyone, as the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association (Ilpa) has pointed out.
"What this means in practice is a system of identity checks for all, since it is necessary for British citizens or people with permanent residence to prove that they are lawfully present in the UK if and when checked," says their response to the Home Office consultation.
Moving swiftly past the decision by the mainstream parties to introduce a legal oversight of the media through the unelected, secretive, feudal institution known as the Privy Council, let’s deal with state surveillance which we’re not supposed to know about.
US whistleblower Edward Snowden has just been given the Sam Adams Award by former CIA officers, who gave it to him in Russia, for “exhibiting integrity in intelligence”. The Guardian’s decision to publish Snowden’s revelations has run into a wall of hostility and intimidation.
Britain’s secret services – backed by Labour, Tory and LibDem politicians – have all but accused the Guardian of treason for printing chapter and verse of how the state can access every digital transmission you make – at will and without you knowing.
MI5 chief Andrew Parker’s accusation that Snowden was “handing the advantage to terrorists” ratcheted up the offensive on behalf of the secret state. He was predictably backed by No 10 and the ultra-reactionary Daily Mail, which accused the Guardian of “lethal irresponsibility”.
But it’s not simply the Tories versus the Guardian. Former Labour home secretary Jack Straw has leapt into the fray. He claims that the Guardian was arrogant and naïve and guilty of “adolescent excitement” in its handling of Snowden’s material. At least Straw’s consistent. It was New Labour that laid the legal ground for mass surveillance with its passing of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIP) 2000.
But things have moved on dramatically since 2000 as novelist John Lanchester has concluded. Acknowledging his initial scepticism, he spent a week reading the Snowden files in New York (those in London were destroyed on MI5’s orders).
Tempora is the clandestine security electronic surveillance program established by GCHQ in 2011. It was exposed by Snowden, along with Prism, which is the US’s own mass data mining programme. The two programmes have a cable and network tapping capability called Upstream which allows spooks to extract information in “real time”.
Lanchester notes that the “basic intention of the UK-spy base GCHQ engineers is “to get everything”. GCHQ’s eavesdropping abilities “are on a scale unmatched anywhere in the free world, and they privately boast about the ‘more permissive legal environment’ in the UK”.
He rightly says that we are already “the most spied on, monitored and surveilled democratic society there has ever been”. And, in case you think that Snowden simply told us what we already knew – think again.
We are right on the verge of being an entirely new kind of human society, one involving an unprecedented penetration by the state into areas which have always been regarded as private. Do we agree to that? If we don't, this is the last chance to stop it happening. Our rulers will say what all rulers everywhere have always said: that their intentions are good, and we can trust them. They want that to be a sufficient guarantee.
The chilling fact is that the law governing surveillance is “so broadly drafted and interpreted, it’s almost impossible to break”, Lanchester admits.
We don’t live in a democracy, or at least one that is anything more than a sham. The totalitarian nature of state surveillance makes a mockery of the rule of law, which is often the only thing that stands between us and outright dictatorship. The major parties are cosying up to the secret state, not to mention on education and other policies. This lends a great urgency to the campaign for a new people-centred, democratic constitution, an Agreement of the People for the 21st century.
A World to Win secretary
14 October 2013